Thursday, February 26, 2009

Island of the Day Before - Umberto Eco

Books by Umberto Eco have been praised to an extreme degree, and have also evoked a huge amount of criticism. They can be difficult to read at times, and I have known many friends who shied away from his other books once they read any one of them. My opinion differs in the sense that I like his way of writing, and had previously read his 2 other works of fiction (The Name of the Rose, and Foucault's Pendulum). I will be honest, reading Pendulum .. was tough in parts, but once I read the book, I could not help admiring. And of course, 'The Name of the Rose' was simply superb, and my esteem for Umberto Eco went up pretty high after reading both of them. Next was 'The Island of the Day Before'. This is a book that has had many more mixed reviews, with many people outrightly condemning the book as too complicated and a lesser work. I do not share the same views; for me, the book was interesting and worth reading.

The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco (1994)

The tale is complex, being the tale of a person in a shipwreck, as revealed through letters and memoirs. It is not just the tale of the isolation of a ship-wreck, but the tale of the life of 17th century France, of the society, the politics, and through all this, the life of a young man. The book is the story of Roberto della Griva, born into a minor noble family. The story is devoid of many details, such as how the memoirs of Roberto got into the hands of the modern day editor who is writing the book.
Roberto is a complex personality, he believes that all the problems that he suffers is because he has an evil twin called Ferrante (an easy way to blame all the problems that a person suffers); Ferrante is a way out to ascribe the problems that a person may face. As Roberto is growing up, there is a sudden upheaval in his life, his father dies in a siege, in the Siege of Casale, the fortress guarding the frontier between Italy and France. Roberto makes his way to France where he suffers from one-way love (and that too with one of the great ladies of France); the novel also describes the colorful and complex situation in France of that time, this is the time when there is a transfer of power happening between Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin.
However, he is soon forced into booking his passage on a Dutch ship (the Amaryllis) that is on an expedition to find the problems of longitude, and unfortunately for him, he ends up in a shipwreck, and is washed up on another deserted ship, the Daphne. And this is where the title of the book is relevant, since Roberto believes that the ship sits on the International Date Line, and he can look at the previous day from one side of the ship.
The book may seem boring to some, but for others, it is a perfect example of the writings of Umberto Eco. Worth reading, and for many, worth treasuring.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1812)

By the time Manfield Park was written, Jane Austen had already released 2 of her earlier novels (Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice), and these were enough to make her famous. On the other hand, Mansfield Park was far more controversial. The principal character of Fanny Price has been acknowledged to be complex, a person of a good conscience. At the same time, the novel really does not reveal too much about her, since you don't really get to hear too much from her in the novel. Unlike's Jane Austen's characters from her earlier books, Fanny is far more straight in her thoughts and beliefs, and is not seen to be making any mistake. Jane Austen further seeks to strengthen the character of her heroine by making her childhood poverty be the reason for her strength, a point that is not likely to be something that modern audiences can understand.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1812)

Mansfield Park is the name of a house owned by the wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram. He is married to Fanny's aunt (Fanny's mother married a poor solider, and hence their life has always been distant from the rich world of Sir Thomas). However, Fanny has been sent to her aunt's house to take care of her aunt, but because of her poverty, 3 of her cousins, Tom, Maria and Julia, ignore her and do not consider her to be of the same level. It is only the second son, Edmund, who treats Fanny kindly; as a result, Fanny has always looked at Edmund with devotion, which turns to love as she grows (the novel depicts her in a majority of the story to be at age 18-19).
Sir Thomas is strict, and this seems to have a bearing on the behaviour of his 3 children, Tom, Maria and Julia, who all have their own weaknesses, whether that be Tom's weakness for gambling, or the vain and arrogant nature possessed by Maria or Julia. Soon, Sir Thomas leaves for 2 years to tend to his estates in Antigua, and then the entire drama starts soon after, with the arrival of Henry Crawford and his sister Mary. Henry charms both Maria and Julia (specially Maria), and to Fanny's distress, Mary and Edmund start getting closer (although Edmund is not sure about Mary's true nature). However, in the midst of rehearsing for a play, Sir Thomas returns, and is not happy to see the ongoing rehearsal, effectively ending all thoughts of having a play. Henry and Mary leave for some time.
Henry, after returning, wants to amuse himself by charming Fanny, but finds himself falling in love with her instead. When he proposes marriage, and for a poor girl such as Fanny, this is a very good proposal, she already knows about his affairs with her cousins, and she declines. The entire family gets shocked, and she leaves Mansfield Park for some time. Soon after, there is another scandal, where Maria (who had married the rich but boring Mr. Rushworth) has an affair with Henry in London, leading to a divorce from her husband. At around the same time, Tom also falls ill, and Fanny heads back to Mansfield Park to take care of Tom. Edmund also realizes that Mary's true nature is not acceptable to him, and he actually loves Fanny. Eventually, Edmund marries Fanny.